There Is No Oversight: The NSA Withheld Documents From Intelligence Committee Heads
from the 'oversight'-is-the-new-'forced-myopia' dept
There has never been effective oversight of the NSA’s bulk collections programs, or indeed, intelligence agencies in general. There’s been a lot of noise made about this vaunted oversight in defense of programs revealed by leaked documents, but this is nothing more than a talking point.
The NSA (along with the CIA) has no interest in real oversight or accountability, not even to the final arbiter of its domestic surveillance, the FISA court. Judge Walton threatened to end the Section 215 collection back in 2008 after uncovering widespread abuse of the collections and the NSA’s constant misrepresentation of how it was handling the data it collected.
Over the last several months, it’s become apparent that the committees charged with oversight have withheld documents from their colleagues, and the agencies themselves have avoided answering specific questions about their tactics, turning oversight hearings into games of “20 questions.”
But one would think the intelligence committees themselves would be on the inside track, considering chairpersons and ranking members are some of the most fervent defenders of domestic surveillance. That assumption would be wrong as well.
At The Big Picture, a clip of Sen. John D. Rockefeller (then Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) discussing how oversight actually works has been posted. It’s from an interview given in 2007, about the time the FISA Amendments Act was being put together to replace the expiring Protect America Act. The amendments act, among other things, extended the length of warrantless surveillance and gave telecoms retroactive immunity for their participation in the NSA’s bulk collections.
Here’s Rockefeller explaining why, even back in 2007, intelligence oversight was a joke.
The clip only contains Rockefeller’s response to the question (in bold below). Here’s the answer in context.
DAVIS: Reports quote administration officials as saying this is going on and it’s being done in a way to avoid oversight of the Intelligence Committee. Is there any way—
ROCKEFELLER: They’ll go to any lengths to do that, as we’ve seen in the last two days [during hearings on FISA].
DAVIS: Is there anything you could do in your position as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee to find answers about this, if it is in fact going on?
ROCKEFELLER: Don’t you understand the way Intelligence works? Do you think that because I’m Chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say I want it, and they give it to me? They control it. All of it. ALL of it. ALL THE TIME. I only get – and my committee only gets – what they WANT to give me.
It goes all the way back, as The Big Picture points out. The NSA was created by President Truman in 1952 with a secret memo. The FBI — the name under which bulk telephone records are collected — was similarly crafted without Congressional consent.
The Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was created on July 26, 1908, after Congress had adjourned for the summer. Attorney General Bonaparte, using Department of Justice expense funds, hired thirty-four people, including some veterans of the Secret Service, to work for a new investigative agency. Its first chief (the title is now known as director) was Stanley Finch. Bonaparte notified Congress of these actions in December, 1908.
If the agency was created without Congressional consent, it stands to reason those in it feel legislative oversight is both unwelcome and unnecessary. There’s a lot more oversight happening now, but that’s mainly because the NSA can’t withhold leaked information from the committees. It’s all out in the open.
So, when defenders of the agency start talking about oversight and legality, be sure to remind them that neither of these aspects are particularly strong. The agency operated in darkness for many, many years and the programs that skirted the Constitution were only made legal by dubious, reactionary legislation and secret interpretations of existing laws.